The Weather's Influence on the NFL Playoff Picture

By Stephen Juza

December 5th, 2020

As the season progresses, NFL teams need to prepare for the weather to play an increasing role in their game planning. Using forecast data from between 2009-2019, one in twenty NFL games in September and October are played in inclement weather, defined as freezing temperatures or precipitation during the game. In the later months, as many as one in five games will be played in these conditions during December.

Month Games in Inclement Weather
September 6%
October 6%
Novemeber 8%
December 20%
January 29%

While the weather is inescapable for some teams such as the Buffalo Bills or the Green Bay Packers, other teams such as the New Orleans Saints or the Los Angeles Chargers will only encounter harsh weather conditions on the road. Encountering these conditions may leave those franchises unprepared. Home field advantage plays a more significant role across the league, increasing the home team’s win percentage 11% during inclement weather.

While playing on the road already stacks the deck against the visitors, those franchises that infrequently play in the cold or rain have their road winning percentage drop from 46% to 28% during harsh conditions. For teams that more frequently play in these conditions, their winning percentage only drops to 40% on the road during the regular season.

This phenomenon becomes more pronounced during the playoffs, when games carry more importance. Winter weather evens the playing field for the road team, making upsets more likely. Home teams win 62% of playoff games, but only 54% when they are played in these inclement weather conditions. The ability to pull off these upsets depends greatly on how often franchises play in these conditions.

When a franchise that rarely plays in the cold or rain has to play in these conditions on the road for the playoffs, their win percentage drops from 33% to 11%. These teams rarely play in these conditions, and likely can’t practice in these conditions even if they wanted to, leaving it more difficult to prepare themselves as well as they possibly can.

However, for the top third of the league that already frequently plays in these conditions, upsets become far more likely. Their winning percentage on the road jumps from 39% to 71%. Besides the experience of playing in these games, they also may be able to practice in these conditions throughout the week since their own practice conditions likely mirror that of the road stadium.

How will this potentially impact the playoffs this season? As the standings currently sit, in the AFC, the three highest seeds (Steelers, Chiefs, and Bills) are among the teams with the most games in inclement weather. It could be difficult to upset them during the playoffs if winter weather sets in, making their path to the Super Bowl easier.

In the NFC, the opposite may happen. The onset of winter weather likely won’t influence their games come playoff time. Right now, the path to the Super Bowl travels through New Orleans, a domed stadium. However, sitting one game back from the Saints is the Packers. A road playoff game at Lambeau Field in January will prove a daunting task for many aspiring playoff teams.

With only a few weeks remaining in the season, there is still plenty of football to play. But the weather will play an increasingly large role in game-planning between now and the end of the season, and one that will increasingly tip the odds in the favor of the seasoned team.

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